Ask An Adult: Why Do I Freak Out When I'm Home Alone?
The Debrief: Do you get freaked out when you're at home alone, even when you're totally safe? Here's why you do it, and how to stop
It’s Friday night and I’ve been looking forward to a night in all week. So why am I sat in my living room with the curtains closed, too scared to go into my kitchen? My heart’s hammering, even though it’s 9pm and I know my flatmates will be coming home in a few hours. Welcome to one of my home alone freak outs – and according to experts, I’m not alone.
We talk about getting home safely from a night out – but what if you don’t feel all that safe once you’ve shut the front door? Why do some of us freak out like this? And more importantly, how can I grow up and stop letting this bother me?
It sounds really ridiculous, but my biggest fear is seeing someone come towards me through my kitchen window when it’s dark. It doesn’t help that we’ve got a kitchen with big windows and no blinds (we really need to get some blinds). My mind often runs away with itself and I’m genuinely terrified that there’s an axe murderer just waiting for me in my garden. And he’s going to pop up at the window when I’m doing the washing up, obviously.
I think I may have overdosed on horror films when I was at school, but the fear is completely real.
Dr Elle Boag, a senior lecturer in social psychology at Birmingham City University, told me that it’s not uncommon to panic when you’re home alone.
‘It’s not just you,’ she says. ‘This is a form of social anxiety. As a species we’re evolved to be quite fearful of something that’s a potential threat, and some people are more vigilant than others. Other people are scared of heights or spiders – things that could have ancestrally killed us. When your body goes into fight or flight mode like this it can be hard to calm down – even when your rational mind knows it’s silly.’
Lucy, 27, a make-up artist, confirms that it’s not just me being mental. ‘I had an awful moment last week when I was home alone and there was a power cut at about 10pm. I managed to find my way to the front door, but then I couldn’t find my keys in the dark – it was properly awful. In that split second I was convinced there was somebody hiding in my kitchen or about to come downstairs to kill me.’
So, is there a certain type of person who’ll be more prone to this night time panic? Dr Boag tells me that you could be more prone to this if you’re a natural worrier or anxious in other parts of your life (erm, that’s me all right).
‘If you’re anxious or needy in relationships then you might feel that you need someone there in order to feel safe at night,’ she says. Well, I’m single and have been for a while, but I know for sure I’d feel safe if I had a boyfriend at home with me – which is probably a tad pathetic, but that’s how it is.
Some people, it seems, are just more sensitive to what’s going on around them than others (great for driving tests, bad for nights in alone). It could also be that you’ve had a traumatic experience in the past (in which case, counselling and your GP could help) or have been affected deeply by films or the media. Watching Scream seven times over when I was in Year Eight was probably a terrible idea, now I think about it.
Interestingly, it seems to make no difference if you’re a woman or a man. Though I’ve never personally had a boy mate confess to me that he holes himself up with his cat for company whenever he’s flipping out about being home alone, the experts I spoke to were in agreement that anxiety affects both sexes in exactly the same way. It’s quite comforting to think that any one of my dad’s mates in the pub might feel this way too – they just don’t admit it.
So, how can you overcome a phobia of being home alone? I want to be BOSSING it at home like the independent woman I am – not hiding away in my room with the door locked.
Dr Boag recommends alleviating the amount of fear you experience in ways that work for you. Knowing the things that put you in a happy and relaxed state in everyday life will give you a coping strategy if panic hits. For example, listening to music you like can help produce endorphins and help with stress.
It’s also important to avoid stimulants like caffeine – even tea – because it makes you become hyper-aroused and can cause anxiety. And maybe hold off on the heavy weekends if you’re freaking out at being home alone – big weekends without a proper rest can lead to mid-week panic.
If you feel you need to, try a herbal supplement, such a Kalms. Then there’s exercise – yoga which can be really effective at calming the mind. And if things are getting really hard, then Dr Boag recommends you talk to your GP.
‘And get a pet!’ she says. See, I knew I wasn’t just a weird cat lady – they do help.
‘Be kind to yourself,’ recommends counsellor Eve Menezes Cunningham. ‘Imagine yourself as a small child. Would yelling at yourself and telling yourself you’re stupid help? A little empathy can go a long way.
‘You know yourself best. As you imagine it getting dark, think about how you’ll be feeling and what will support you most – even if that’s being barricaded in the living room with something nice to watch on TV.’
Lastly, address the situation in a practical manner. Check your front door is locked before it goes dark when you’re feeling more robust, and if your locks aren’t as safe as you like, arrange to get them changed.
Now, I’m off to get some blinds for the kitchen, via the gym. But my cat’s going nowhere.
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